Attendees of Refinery29’s “Expand Your Reality” 29Rooms event may very well leave with Day-Glo paint on their clothes, marks from a palm reader on their hands and a temporary tattoo of a graphic strawberry on their wrist. They may also leave with a new perspective and a new friend or two.
The art installation experience, which kicked off Aug. 29 and runs through Sept. 8 at The Works in West Midtown, invites guests into a neon fever dream of immersive artwork that’s meant to be touched and talked about, played with and walked through. It’s also organized in a way that encourages conversation and interaction among strangers about race and gender, politics, creativity and anything in between.
“29Rooms is…[an] award-winning festival of cause, culture and creativity,” says Katherine Tooley, senior vice president of Refinery29’s experiential events. “Under one roof, guests can explore 29 different experiences that express an eclectic mix of art forms and creative voices that aim to spark conversation and self-reflection.”
In the social experiment that is the 29 Questions room, visitors are invited to pull up a chair across from a stranger, look into their eyes and use question cards – with questions like “who do you miss?,” “what do you want to be remembered for?” and “what color is your aura?” – to spark real conversations with people they don’t know, “tapping into the joy of shared humanity.”
In A Blind Date with Destiny, guests go into a candle-lit, curtained room, and place their palm in the hands of a stranger that they can’t see as they have their headlines, heart lines and lifelines read.
29Rooms is also packed with interactive art installations like Teenage Bedroom, created in collaboration with artist Uzumaki Capeda, who “invites guests to enter a time warp and revisit their teenage years,” and A Conversation with Your Inner Child by Carlota Guerrero that allows attendees to write messages to their inner child and post them on the walls.
Refinery29 kicked off their 29Rooms event in 2015 in New York, both as a 10-Year Anniversary celebration for the brand, and as a way to disrupt the exclusivity of New York Fashion Week, says Tooley. Partnering with creative visionaries like Petra Collins and Solange Knowles, Refinery29 built 29 “distinct artistic experiences that everyone could enjoy” that would go on to welcome over 100,000 visitors over four years.
Refinery29 has brought 29Rooms to cities all over the country, and partnered with organizations like Planned Parenthood, ACLU, GLAAD and the Women’s March, as well as cultural heavy-hitters like Janelle Monae and Lena Waithe. This year is the event’s first in Atlanta.
“As a cultural hub in the South, Atlanta is home to a vibrant community of creatives that we were excited to tap into,” says Tooley. Not only is Atlanta a “hotspot for arts, culture and civic engagement,” she says, it’s also home to an emerging market that Refinery29 sees value in connecting with.
In addition to the installations that travel across the country with the 29Rooms event – including 29 Questions, Blind Date with Destiny and A Conversation with Your Inner Child – the Atlanta event also features the work of local artists Neka King and Sarah Emerson.
King, an interdisciplinary artist working in visual, digital and print-based media, created a large multi-paneled installation piece for 29Rooms’ Art Park, featuring black silhouettes on bold color backgrounds with a kind of “Afro-futuristic, mystical imagery.”
“My theory and motto as far as creating art and making work has always been inviting people into my own personal perspective, my own personal stories,” King says, “and through that, add to a larger conversation we’re having about black women and the history of black people in this country” – a perspective on bold display in her beautiful, graphic piece for 29Rooms.
“The [prompt] was ‘Expand Your Reality,’ but what does that mean? To me, I just wanted to convey to viewers their part in this expanded reality. You’re your own universe,” she says. “You’re walking through this world and your reality is going to be different than the person next to you. I wanted to get them kind of thinking about that, get them thinking about their place in [a larger reality], and other people’s place in it, through an illustration.”
Sarah Emerson, an artist and professor at Agnes Scott College who’s highly stylized, abstract paintings and installations take aim at contemporary culture, created a “large scale, colorful, cartoon-like landscape mural” for the Make Your Mark 29Rooms experience — one that also glows in UV light.
“Since my paintings are not representational, viewers won’t see a recognizable landmark or cityscape,” says Emerson, “but I think viewers will see some familiar references to some socio-political issues that we are all working through as a city and as a nation.”
In addition to her mural, Emerson also created interactive, sculptural, Paint-by-Numbers-type cubes that visitors can decorate using neon, Day-Glo-colored paints.
“I hope that people will engage with the imagery initially because of its spectacle,” Emerson says, “but I also hope that it will spark conversations about the juxtaposed symbols and elements placed throughout the image. Although my paintings are completely personal interpretations of the physical and psychological environment as I see it, when my work is in public, I’m much more interested in the viewer’s story than my own.”
What Tooley is perhaps most interested in is 29Rooms’ ability to foster real connection and conversation through art, “to ignite people’s imaginations, spark dialogue and get people outside their comfort zones so they can discover something new.”
“We want to see people get involved,” she says, “see them dance, pick up a paintbrush, talk to a stranger.”